What to Expect if You're Trump's White House Photographer
Prior to JFK, the White House didn’t have a full-time photographer on staff. That all changed with Cecil Stoughton, who was hired to help develop JFK’s “Camelot” narrative. Camelot may have been cut tragically short, but the White House photographer position has remained ever since. The White House photographer is charged with visually documenting the next four to eight years of American history, and whoever the Trump Administration chooses will only be the tenth person in history to hold the position. How will photographing Trump be different?
Every President Comes with a Different Kind of Access
Presidents Ford and Obama gave their photographers essentially unlimited access to their personal lives. One of the most famous photographs of President Ford is one of him petting his golden retriever, Liberty. Some Presidents don’t operate so openly. President Nixon treated his photographer essentially as an extension of the PR department. He wasn’t allowed very many places. His most famous photograph is one of Nixon shaking hands with Elvis in a very controlled, portrait-esque, manner. Different administrations want to tell different stories.
Harry Benson has photographed every U.S. President since Eisenhower. He has also photographed Donald Trump for the past 40 years, so he probably has some insight on the personality of the President-elect as a subject. If Benson’s experience is any indication, President Trump will be a more engaging President than a restrictive one. Benson notes:
“He comes up with an idea, he jumps on it right away. That’s great for a photographer… Of all the Presidents I’ve photographed, I’d say Trump is nearer Ronald Reagan than he is to Jimmy Carter [laughs]. They know people are looking at them all of the time. Reagan couldn’t disappear and neither can Trump. Characters like that come around not that often. They’re larger than life.”
Expect a Lot of Photos
Pete Souza, the current White House photographer for President Obama, estimates that he will have taken around 2 million photos of the President come the end of January. That’s around 20,830 photos per month, or 694 photos per day. That’s a lot of pictures, from serious meetings to interactions with family to foreign trips. Pete Souza shoots his photos on one of two Canon 5d MkIII’s, though has has occasionally shot on the Fuji X100T. His primary lens is the Canon 24-70 F/2.8 L II, but he also uses the Canon 135mm f/2.0 for when he needs to keep a distance and the 35mm f/1.4 L for when he can get up close.
It’s hard to imagine the Trump administration being any different. As a businessman, Donald Trump used the power of the photograph to cement an image of success and power. Whether he takes a more nuanced approach than he did with Harry Benson remains to be seen.
The Twitter President
Social media isn’t going away anytime soon, and it has completely changed the game for White House photography. Administrations no longer have to go through traditional media in order to get a photo out into the world. Flickr, Instagram, and others give White House photographers exclusive access to things that used to be co-opted by the media. Take, for instance, President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama. Pete Souza was the only photographer allowed, forcing the media to use only official White House photos released from the meeting instead of being allowed to capture their own. Pictures can reach the public directly now, even if it pisses off the media.
Given President Trump’s embracing of Twitter and famously combative relationship with the media, we can probably expect these social media trends to be turned up a notch. The current White House’s Instagram emphasizes President Obama’s human side. There is a focus on emotion.
It will be interesting to see if the Trump administration takes a similar approach. If they do, it would be a departure for the President, whose visual catalogue features a narrow range of emotion and a higher degree of grandiosity, even when presenting his soft side.
Invisibly Defining History
Whatever happens in the next four to eight years is uncertain, but the White House photographer will help define it. Eric Draper photographed the Bush Administration’s response during 9/11, Pete Souza photographed the Obama Administration on the night the U.S. killed the man responsible for the attacks. The White House photographer will be present for these moments, and smaller ones as well. What that presence means, though, might change. As Pete Souza puts it, “For a presidential photographer, there’s no higher praise than being utterly ignored, so that the subjects pay you no attention and you get the most natural shots.”
How possible that will be with the larger than life, camera-aware, presence of Donald Trump remains to be seen.